Reflections of a Wandering Christian

To wander is to journey from place to place, often more than once, in search of adventure, worldly wisdom, personal growth, and greater self-understanding. In these ways, my faith journey has been just that: a time of wandering. I was raised mainly in the Evangelical Lutheran church, where I was confirmed and where I actively participated in youth group, mission trips, and service projects. On top of this, my father was a United Methodist minister who, prior to my birth, gave up the collar. But despite this, he remained a preacher in everything but name throughout my childhood, as he continues to do today. Or, as he likes to put it, “I still see myself as more of a minister than a clinical psychologist.”

Therapy, therefore, has become my father’s ministry, his means of trying to mend hearts, minds, and souls. At heart, he still sees himself as doing the Lord’s work, though he might not exactly phrase it this way. Consequently, what so often seems to be true with pastors and their families was true with mine: faith permeates most areas of life. Needless to say, conversations on the gospels, the resurrection, and the sacraments were about as commonplace at the dinner table or in the family minivan as were discussions about anything else, or at least I remember it this way. (Dad especially loves discussing the Apostle Paul’s letters and reading the book of Mark.) Put another way, my upbringing metaphorically resembled that of Norman Maclean, also a preacher’s kid, who memorably wrote: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing” (A River Runs Through It). And truly, there was none. In my Father’s eyes, everything began and ended with a pursuit of faith. Even though our family was far from perfect or, hell, even functional, my father imagined that “faithing”—a striving to believe and better understand Jesus—could make anything or anyone better, clearer, more whole.

In this way, faithing deeply underpinned and imbued my childhood experiences, values, and ways of constructing meaning from lived experience. Growing up, my family began each meal and ended each day with a prayer, often the Lord’s Prayer. (“Our father who art in Heaven hallowed be thy name…”) My dad frequently sang my sister and I “Jesus Loves Me” and read us parables from our rainbow-colored, graphic Bible for children. And despite being away from ministry for over six years, my father held me in his arms and anointed my head in holy baptism in 1995. All to say, regardless of how often or in what ways Christian messages took root in me, the expectation—explicit or not—became clear: a robust faith in Jesus Christ was to be strived for always. Consequently, no matter how far I ran from the church or from Jesus—whether out of hurt, frustration, perceived obsolescence, or otherwise—I felt more morally compelled to return with vigor and enlightenment each time. Despite my recurrent questions, I figured God would always afford me stronger faith and greater clarity to my nagging questions as long I continued returning to the same supposition: Jesus saves, even sinners like me.

Of course, there are other suppositions and platitudes that I clung to as well, some of which I now find truly hurtful and problematic—namely that:

  • Faith is more about ideas than relationships
  • The existence of God can be empirically proven and conveyed through empirical, almost scientific logic
  • One person can be “more Christian” or “less Christian” than another person
  • Doubt and faith cannot coexist
  • A person should feel shame for not believing at all or not believing similarly to another person
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”

For the sake of this article, I will not discuss all of these points, especially #6, because I believe its influences are far too wide and complex for me to address at this time. Further, I seek to avoid this proposition for it might entirely result in fruitless, teleological arguments.

***

By the tone of my writing thus far, it seems pretty clear that my Christian beliefs have evolved considerably over my short 24 years. For one, I try not to cling my father’s faith and my Christian upbringing when describing my current faith. (Admittedly, avoiding this can prove more difficult than expected.) Nor do I aim to use the trope of the “Rebellious P.K.” (Preacher’s Kid) as a crutch when explaining my doubts and frustrations with Christianity. Because, surely, it’s more complicated than that. After all, one’s faith is formed by a vast web of complex relationships, events, identities, geographies, etc. As such, I aim to offer a more honest assessment of where I stand with my Christian faith in the following paragraphs. I do so, first and foremost, as a reflection of my own beliefs and experiences, not as invalidation of anyone else’s—unless, of course, “Your disagreement is rooted in [others’] oppression and denial of [others’] humanity and right to exist,” as James Baldwin so beautifully reminded us. Further, I hope that these reflections afford valuable perspectives to others who have faced, or are facing, similar questions. And perhaps, most significantly, I write these things because I firmly believe there are fundamental issues with how faith and faith formation are commonly envisioned and practiced in our culturally Christian, American society. Lastly, since I am no theologian, I humbly hope these words can serve as a beacon of hope, not merely a siren sound or a gripe on why things are the way they are. We, Christians, can and should do better. I truly believe there is hope.

***

Now 24, I have maintained a complex and uncomfortably distant relationship with church for the past six years, since the beginning of college. Throughout high school, I attended youth group nearly every Sunday night, church services often, and mission trips multiple times. Without a doubt, from July 2011 through August 2014, I wholeheartedly identified as a firm believer…And then I wasn’t.

For me, it feels difficult to trace the exact point at which major questions about my Christian faith began to emerge. On one hand, I had long maintained deep-seated questions about God’s workings in the world. Hell, at the age of five, I spent the better part of one particular Sunday school lesson trying to disprove multiple aspects of my beleaguered teacher’s lesson. Even then, non-empirical (unable to be physically witnessed or observed) explanations just didn’t seem to hold much water. “If God and Jesus operate under different paradigms than you and I, well, then just say so,” my young mind must have thought. Further, “Please don’t maintain that traditional logic holds true here,” my thoughts probably continued. Of course, I am interpreting a bit here, because by no means could I have used a word like “paradigm” at five, especially when I struggled to read through the third grade. Nonetheless, my point still stands: Faith as it was explained to me just didn’t seem to make much sense. And surely, my bullshit meter would not let me believe otherwise.

Despite my parents’ prodding and encouragement, I firmly held these doubts and frustrations up through my freshman year of high school. Up until that point, no one seemed to communicate to me that faith is, first and foremost, a relationship, not an idea. (I cannot stress this point enough!) To be fair, I am sure numberless people tried to explain the mystical nature of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit (together called “The Trinity”) and yet failed resonate these concepts across my thick skull. Nevertheless, and more significantly, I firmly know that matters of Christianity were also communicated to me as empirical certainties or as facts—like things to be learned in school—rather than as matters of relationship and belief, or as my father would say it: “Something to be faithed.”

Thus, current teachings—at least as I have experienced them—seem to be one of the more significant issues surrounding Christianity and the “Dropout Problem” (the phenomenon whereby many Christians are leaving the church). Up until recently, that I failed to understand that faith is chiefly about relationships, not merely ideas, seems truly concerning. Of course, I also believe Christian education has its place as well. Further, I believe that Christian education can rhythmically dance and coexist with a rapidly secularizing world if its teachers and practitioners are to acknowledge its scope and limits. In this way, perhaps Christianity can be likened to a defendant in a legal trial. If the defendant is to openly acknowledge his moral shortcomings up front, then he will live to fight another day in court. And if not, then he will be cross-examined, rhetorically ripped to shreds, found a liar, and likely convicted. Of course, I do not wish to suggest that modern society should put Christianity on trial. Rather, I mean to suggest that Christianity can only be present and vivacious when doubt is given the light of day.

***

wc.boyle_
Courtesy of UNLV

On a much different note, I have recently found great solace in the teachings of two different faith practitioners: Father Joseph Boyle and Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. Optically, the two could not seem more different. Portly with a white-Santa Claus beard, Father Boyle is the founder and head of Homeboy Ministries is East Los Angeles. For the past four decades, he has diligently served members of his gang-ridden, drug-saturated, dispossessed community in their strivings to escape poverty, make an honest living, and live past 18. Despite all the carnage he has witnessed, Boyle projects a sense of hope that few seem to arrive at under conventional circumstances. He writes, “Compassion is not a covenant between a healer and the wounded. It’s a covenant between equals.” Later, he follows, “Al Sharpton always says, ‘We are all created equal, but we don’t end up equal” (Tattoos on the Heart). Bolz-Weber, on the other hand, is a sleeved-up, fifty-something preacher at Denver, Colorado’s House for All Sinners and Saints. Her congregation is quite literally composed of everyone: junkies, the domestically abused, poor people, homeless people, straight people, LGBTQ folks, people of all professions and experiences, etc. Speaking to this, she writes, “My Christian faith tells me that good news is only good if it is for everyone, otherwise it’s just ideology” (Shameless: A Sexual Reformation). Moreover, though Boyle and Bolz-Weber could not seem more different, at least at a cursory glance, their faiths and faith practices maintain perfect synchrony. For them, faith centers around two things, which largely seem to be one: compassion (demonstrating love as Jesus did) and faithing (being a faith practitioner, not just proclaiming ideas and dogma).

Nadia-Profile--e1543960061221
Courtesy of All Saints Church

And truly, as a wandering Christian, I could not find more hope in Bolz-Weber and Boyle’s faith models. Each day, they and their congregants demonstrate that one Christian faith is not ideologically more or less than another Christian faith. Rather, they show that everyone’s faith bears unmeasurable value and potential if it is converted to acts of compassion and, more, a life of service to all of God’s creation.

***

For better or worse, I am still my father’s son. Like him, I was baptized, confirmed, and raised in the church. On weekends, we regularly attended worship services, Sunday school classes, and impromptu church potlucks with our respective parents, at our respective churches. And like him, I have also faced great doubt surrounding my faith. Interestingly enough, this also seems to be a Bruster family trend. Long ago, my paternal grandmother, a P.K. herself, once quipped to my father about how “too much religion is not a good thing.”

Grandma, although I never knew you, I could not agree more. Faith and religion are simply not the same. Faith mainly seems to confer action and compassion; whereas, religion mainly seems to confer thinking and judgement. And surely, our world does not need more of the latter.

***

As I reflect upon all of this, I recognize that it would be greatly self-serving and solipsistic to define a more preferred Christian faith as merely being like mine, despite all of my questions and wanderings. After all, this is the exact perspective I am aiming to counter. Nevertheless, I think some merit may lie in a faith like mine—a faith that often feels, “As small as a mustard seed.” Perhaps that is the very faith we need to heal hearts, bridge divides, and “Move mountain(s) from here to there” (Matthew 17: 20 NIV). Perhaps a faith as small a mustard seed can help each of us to truly be “in this world” and “of this world,” to leave our comfort zones and actually get to know others who don’t look or believe just like us. Or, in short, to boundlessly love, live, and serve as Jesus wants us to…

I have surely my questions, and my faith might not always feel strong. But I have hope that I can faith. More, if you so desire, I hope you can, too.

 

One thought on “Reflections of a Wandering Christian

  1. I love your Father’s term ‘faithing’ – what a great word for our ongoing grapplings! And your Grandma seems pretty sound too 🙂

    Like

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